Since it is a yearly occurrence for the West to have 13 teams in the playoff race and two team at least 20 points out of eighth, I struggled to find a good balance of picks this season. I made a bold choice with the Kings last year. While I don’t have them coming out of the West, I have made a similarly bold statement
1. Los Angeles Kings – Yes, I have them first yet again. They added more talent and should see a better performance from Jonathon Quick this season. Not to mention Mike Richards will bring serious skill to both ends of the ice. They won’t play for the Cup, but they will win the regular season race.
2. Vancouver Canucks – Outside of Christian Ehrhoff’s departure, I’m not sure who else they will really miss. There shouldn’t be much of a Stanley Cup hangover as they strive to avenge their shortcomings against Boston. Expect another deep playoff run.
3. Detroit Red Wings – Another season, another Central Division title. The Wings always have some black aces coming up the pipe and they made little changes from outside the organization due to this. They will be a safe bet to win the Central and a safe bet to win at least one playoff round.
4. Nashville Predators – Pekka Rinne is the best goaltender in the NHL. All-around he is the best and I expect him to win the Vezina this year to prove it. Shea Weber happens to be a complete stud on the blueline and leads an impressive defensive corps. If the Preds can score some goals they will be a scary team.
5. San Jose Sharks – The Sharks made a lot of noise this offseason, but didn’t bring in any real game changers. I don’t think Brett Burns is the player they are looking for to bring a championship home. He is little more than a tall version of Dan Boyle. The Sharks will certainly make the playoffs, they could even win a round or two based on their matchup.
6. Chicago Blackhawks – The Central could be the most competitive division in the NHL. The Northeast will challenge for that distinction, but the Central could send four teams to the playoffs. Corey Crawford’s development will be key on the Blackhawks returning. Even if he is average, they have more than enough talent to find a spot in the top 16.
7. Anaheim Ducks – Jonas Hiller makes or breaks this equation. If he is great the Ducks could challenge for the division crown. If he is average they will battle for a playoff spot. I am betting on somewhere in the middle and a bottom four playoff spot for Anaheim.
8. Minnesota Wild – The Wild made a ton of moves this offseason. Mainly with the Sharks, but that is no matter. They have a great goalie and brought in some new faces that should be more effective than just Marty Havlat. If Niklas Backstrom can get some help the Wild will certainly make the playoffs.
9. Calgary Flames – I’m sorry to say the Flames will miss the postseason again this year. They have an insane talent in Jarome Iginla and a superstar goalie. Yet, they still have so many holes in their lineup. The biggest problem I see, hoping Chris Butler will play regular minutes to fill the void left by Robyn Regehr.
10. St. Louis Blues – I just feel like the Blues are missing something. They have some very strong players in David Backes, T.J. Oshie and David Perron (pending his noggin). Yet, they always seem to falter. They should challenge for a playoff spot but narrowly miss thanks to that missing x-factor.
11. Columbus Blue Jackets – Yes, they went out and got two major upgrades. Yes, Rick Nash has a real center to play with. No, it won’t get them into the playoffs. It seems like Steve Mason is turning out to be a one-year wonder. In addition, they play in a scary division with teams stacked with depth. I don’t think the Jackets have the right pieces to make a run this season.
12. Edmonton Oilers – The Oilers are still searching for someone to play goalie for them. Make that, searching for someone to play well in net. If they ever find that goaltender there is a good chance they will see a major improvement in the standings. However, it doesn’t seem as if they have that goalie entering this season.
13. Colorado Avalanche – Seymon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere are an improvement over the tire fire that was Craig Anderson, Brian Elliot and Peter Budaj. Sadly, neither of the two new guys will make this team much better. The Avs will continue to bemoan the trade that brought them Erik Johson and the fact that Chris Stewart isn’t there to dominate on the wing. They are in a serious rebuilding mode.
14. Dallas Stars – Losing Brad Richards was going to be tough on this team. Trying to replace him with Michael Ryder is downright ludicrous. While Ryder isn’t expected to be his only replacement, this Moneyball-style rebuild probably won’t work in Big-D.
15. Phoenix Coyotes – Phoenix made no significant changes this offseason, a product of not having an owner. They lost their best player to free agency, a product of having no owner. They will try to replace this player with two career backups who aren’t very good. Oh yeah, and their only prospective owner just bought the Blues. I hear Quebec City is glorious in February.
Western Conference Champions – Nashville Predators: The Preds have the grit, goaltending and defense to go far in the NHL playoffs. Pekka Rinne will only get better as he sees more time in the NHL playoffs. So long as they find some scoring they will come out of the West.
Stanley Cup Champions – Nashville Predators: As stated above, the Predators will come out of the West if they find some goal scoring. I fully expect them to have the ability to play an effective series against anyone in the East thanks to their goaltending, if they find offense no one will beat them.